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Yes, You Can 3D Print Metal in the Field, BUT..

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Conference Abstract: Army Directive 2019-29 explains that advanced manufacturing (including additive manufacturing, or AM) can address readiness challenges by transforming battlefield logistics through on-demand fabrication of parts close to the point of need, thus reducing the large number of parts stored and transported around the world. Throughout the last seven years, the US Army Combat Capabilities Development Command (DEVCOM) has developed and integrated various systems to deploy and demonstrate additive manufacturing capabilities in austere field environments. Starting with polymer AM technology assisted in identification of numerous applications with varying significance, but there has always been strong desire from Soldiers for metal AM capabilities.

In 2021, DEVCOM deployed and demonstrated the US Army’s first expeditionary system with metal AM capabilities (hybrid CNC milling machine with integrated laser wire DED). Lessons learned from this deployment along with extensive market research has proven that deploying metal AM technology requires a difficult balance of safe, deskilled, and user-friendly operability, ability to fabricate using a variety of relevant materials, minimized post processing requirements, reduction of logistics burden to sustain contested operations, rapid deployability, and ruggedization of hardware to survive harsh military environments.

For various reasons that will be covered in the full brief, I believe that the best metal AM process to provide the utmost military utility is laser powder bed fusion, or LPBF. This poses many challenges; but if military, industry, and academia can focus efforts, I believe it possible to deploy this technology. This has inspired DEVCOM to generate a topic for a Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program which has been awarded to two companies and is currently under way with Phase I efforts. As the US Army’s R&D leaders, we will continue pushing the limits of advanced manufacturing at the point of need to enable increased Army Readiness and lethality.
  • Thomas Vretis
    Lead General Engineer, Expeditionary Advanced Manufacturing
    US Army DEVCOM Armaments Center